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Malawi to Tanzania at Songwe

Border crossingsPosted by Espen Sun, September 16, 2012 19:46:06

As far as I know there is only one border crossing between Malawi and Tanzania. At least on the maps. Songwe border post is on the M1 main road between the two countries. We arrived just before lunch on the Malawian side.

This is the second border in Africa where “helpers”, or whatever you should call them, start chasing after you a hundred meters or so before you reach the entry gate to the border post. Here it was money changers and a couple of insurance sellers. If we can avoid it we never exchange money on the street. Official visas are normally paid in dollars, and at most border crossings it is not too far to the next town with an ATM. The last few years has seen an explosion of these machines all over. In some cases, the insurance at the border has to be paid in local currency (or the dollar exchange rate at the insurance company is terrible). Then you have to either get money from a bank or official exchange office in the country you are leaving (or another traveler coming the other way), or exchange money at the border. At least, at this border we’d heard that there was an official exchange office.

Well. We drove into the border area ignoring the “helpers” shouting outside our windows. Exiting a country is normally the fastest part, and we parked just to the left of the gates (where you see the truck in the distance). Immigration and Customs are in the building to the right of the gates, straight ahead in the pic. No parking fees or anything, even if people come over and want to help (we didn’t really pay attention to what they were saying, just parked, locked the car, and walked into the Immigration office). Had to fill in an exit form for Immigrations, but the stamps came quick. Desk to the right was Customs, and one officer had to take the Carnet into the office in the back to have it stamped and punched into the computer by another official. A little slow, but came back with our Carnet 10 minutes later. No inspection. We drove through the gate to no-man’s land after about 25 minutes.

We’d heard about an official Money Exchange office, but the only one we found close to the Malawi side was for customers of a certain bank, or something. They couldn’t help us.

A couple of hundred meters on we drove over the bridge separating the two countries, and drove in through the entry gates to the Tanzanian border post. The gate into the Tanzanian border area is open, and you just drive straight in.

Just after the gate we saw a sign to some run down small buildings with “Exchange” and “Insurance” written on them. We decided to walk back after processing the papers.

This picture is taken out of the window to the right, just after driving in through the gate to the Tanzanian border post. The Exchange office is the second building to the left, but it was the same rate as a guy sitting inside (!) the Immigration/Customs building.

There is only one big building at the border. Turn left just after the entry gate, and park outside.

Inside the Immigration is to the far left. Fill in entry form, and get you entry visa. Price is 50 USD per person (Norwegian citizen), and it is paid at Immigration desk. We didn’t get a paper receipt, but they wrote “Paid 50 USD” next to the visa stamp in our passports.

Next thing was a guy that wanted to check our yellow fever certificates. We found this a bit strange as we weren’t coming from a yellow fever area, but we heard from other travelers that they actually had to take the vaccine at the border for the price of 50 USD per person if they wanted to get into the country (this was however at a different border crossing).

Finally, and things hadn’t taken too much time so far, was the Carnet for our car. We knew from other travelers that there is a 20 or 25 USD road tax in Tanzania. At this border they show us that we have to pay 5 + 20 USD, and the 20 USD is supposedly a monthly fee. Make sure you don’t say that you are staying longer than you actually plan to do. This is paid in an office in the back. With the receipts, we get the necessary stamps on our Carnet, and are ready to go. No inspection. Just the insurance is left to organize. The customs officers tell me we can buy insurance in the street just outside the gate in Tanzania, the office we saw on our way in is closed.

We drove to the gate, showed our papers and receipts, wrote our license number into a huge book, and went to look for insurance…

The insurance we were looking for is something called COMESA or “Yellow card”. It is liability insurance valid for Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Burundi, Congo, Djibouti, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland. We’ve been looking for it further south along the way, but we haven’t been able to find a place to buy it. We should perhaps have looked harder to avoid spending time trying to sort it out at a border.

Anyway! The people trying to sell us this insurance are of course the same people that have been on us the whole time since we arrived at the border. Not very reassuring. They show us one office with no name or even a signs saying “insurance”. And of course, the price they give us is ridiculous. Fortunately we had info saying that a six months insurance could be bargained down to 100 USD. After a lot of huffing and puffing a couple of phone calls to “the boss” this was okay. I then asked for a 3 months policy. Not popular. “That is the same price”! Sure… I decided to invest the time and walk around and just ask people in the other stalls/shops along the road. Eventually I ended up back at the border where I started talking to one of the immigration officers. He called an insurance agent he knew, and told me the price should be 80 USD for a 3 months policy. A couple of minutes later this guy showed up on a bicycle, and took me to another office. It turned out that he didn’t have more forms for the COMESA, so he called one of the guys that had been around. He showed up with the COMESA paperwork, and almost an hour after I started, I walked out with an insurance valid for eastern and northeast Africa for three months.

I'm not sure if it is a pint in explaining where the "insurance office" was. They told me that they could not put up a proper office with a logo and prices listed on the wall because they would be so heavily taxed by the government. It seemd they used other offices as a cover, and showed up with the necessary paerwork on request. Not sure though. The office where I got my COMESA was down a path along the fence of the border post. In the picture above, it is down to the left directly after the gate, and it is only a footpath. 50 meters down there is a building on the right with a "public office"-looking logo. Sorry that I don't have a picture. This is where I met Jonathan (info below)

Maybe I should’ve just bought the 100 USD 6 months COMESA and saved me half an hour, but it is so annoying that everybody wants to cheat us. The first price I got for 6 months was 160 USD, so I guess it was worth spending the time.

At least here is the result:

Up to 3 months: 80 USD (according to the guys it was the same for 1 to 3 months)

3 to 6 months: 100 USD

6 to 12 months: 180 USD

The guys I ended up buying from was Jonathan Mwasumbi (Real Insurance Co) and Jerison Anangisye (NIC – National Insurance Co). You can ask around for them, and the prices should be as mentioned above. Another note on the COMESA is that it is cheaper to buy it in some of the countries further north, but this doesn’t really help you much when coming from the south.

But we’re in Tanzania!!!

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